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The surveillance technology that will watch us all, all the time
Wide Angle Motion Imagery (WAMI) is a surveillance game-changer. And it's here.
- In his new book, Eyes in the Sky, Arthur Holland Michel details the evolution of aerial surveillance technology.
- Cameras aboard drones can monitor the entirety of 50 square kilometers for hours without refueling.
- New aerial technologies will create the privacy fights of the future.
That fiction inspires reality is nothing new, yet the depth of this process can be startling—and unnerving. It's hard to imagine Enemy of the State, a 1998 drama-mystery in which Will Smith and Gene Hackman battle a corrupt NSA official played by Jon Voight, would inspire the revolution in aerial surveillance technology currently happening around the world. Yet as Arthur Holland Michel reveals in his new book, that's exactly what happened after a San Francisco-based researcher saw the movie.
For Michel, the founder and co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All is the culmination of nearly a decade-long research project into the burgeoning business of Wide Angle Motion Imagery (WAMI). To put this into perspective, here's one project Michel touches upon, dating back to August 2009:
"In its final form, ARGUS had 1,854,296,064 pixels, enough imaging power to spot an object six inches wide from an altitude of 25,000 feet in a frame twice the width of Manhattan."
Though the term "Orwellian" easily applies to such a technology, Michel's illuminating reporting touches something deeper. Numerous American cities have already been surveilled using these god-like cameras, including Gorgon Stare, a camera-enabled drone that can track individuals over a 50-square kilometer radius from 20,000 feet.
Here's the real rub: the feature that allows users to pinch and zoom on Instagram is similar to what WAMI allows. Anything within those 50-square kilometers is now under the microscope. If this sounds like some futuristic tech, think again: Derivations of this camera system have been tested in numerous American cities.
I recently chatted with Michel about his book. Though he ultimately feels hopeful humans will be benevolent with this technology, he recognizes the dangers it poses in the hands of authoritarian regimes (as well as scorned lovers and voyeurs). The time for legislating drones is now, as these cameras are no longer down the road. They're here.
The future of surveillance technology
When did you first decide to become a horror writer?
I fell into it when I was a student at Bard College. I had this crazy idea to start a research institute that would study drones in all their many forms. That project really took on a life of its own. By the time I graduated in May 2013, we had enough traction that I started working for the college right away. If you study drones, you get to think about and look at a whole range of very nightmarish technologies. The aerial surveillance technologies that the book looks at were particularly frightening to me. I felt like something needed to be written about them.
You write that everyone you talk to who's involved thinks that they're doing it for good reason. Technology itself isn't good or bad, but it's how we use it, and humans are natural voyeurs. It seems so easy and exploitable.
Imagine you have the superpower to watch an entire city simultaneously. Initially you will, like any superhero, use it for very noble ends. You will track down violent criminals. You will bring murderers to justice. But as you're doing all that, you might also notice that there are lesser evil people committing lesser crimes. Maybe someone's illegally dumping garbage in an area where they shouldn't and you think, "I have this capability, I might as well track them down and bring them to justice too." As you work your way down the order of criminal acts, you soon start finding yourself rubbing up against areas where the law isn't so clear. A peaceful protest in my eyes might be a riotous assemblage of thugs in the eyes of somebody else.
Say there is a big public protest. With this camera you can follow thousands of protesters back to their homes. Now you have a list of the home addresses of all the people involved in a political movement. If on their way home you witness them committing some crime—breaking a traffic regulation or frequenting a location that is known to be involved in the drug trade—you can use that surveillance data against them to essentially shut them up. That's why we have laws that prevent the use of surveillance technologies because it is human instinct to abuse them. That's why we need controls.
A drone photo shows the crowd sunbathing at Florya Gunes Beach during the third day of Eid Al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) in Istanbul, Turkey on August 13, 2019.
Photo: Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
You watched a boy get shot in Brooklyn who could have found justice if such a technology was in use. How is the public grappling with the desire for justice and retribution combined with the fear of privacy issues?
It is one of the questions of our time. If we have the capability to bring a violent criminal to justice, then we have a responsibility to use that capability. I saw the violent shooting of this 19-year-old boy. Fortunately he didn't die, but I don't feel particularly safe knowing that his assailants are still roaming free. If that technology had been available at the time, a really significant part of me would have wanted it to be used.
Are there ways of finding a balance? I believe that there are. We found that balance in the past. Consider wiretapping technology. When that technology was first introduced in the early 20th century, there were no controls, and so police were using it on whoever they felt like listening to. Once controls were imposed, there were a set of really strict requirements, namely that you need a warrant for probable cause as deemed by a judge with the court order to listen in on a private conversation.
I live in Los Angeles, where marijuana is recreational. On a federal level, it's not legal. So there's this disparity in the law. A lot of companies are using CBD, yet they're concerned because it's not federally legal. Have you seen any tension between, say, San Francisco, where the city government is implementing rules on facial recognition and aerial surveillance, and the federal government, which could disregard such rules?
It's a fantastic question because as I point out in the book, these conversations are not happening at a federal level. As far as I know, there has only been one congressional document that speaks to the potential dangers of wide area airborne surveillance. That's a problem, because there are a lot of federal agencies that are very eager to use this technology. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have extensive aerial surveillance programs.
So far, we have not to my knowledge seen much outright tension between the local level and the state level, though a lot of these operations and the conversations that happen around them are shrouded in secrecy. There is a good chance that were there any tension or pushback from the local level, we would not hear about it. If Congress and federal agencies step up to the task of actually controlling these technologies, then the state level and the federal level and the local level may see more eye-to-eye on these measures.
Gorgon Stare in Baltimore
Your book is heavily rooted in the U.S. Other governments could be much less likely to care about legislation and much more likely to monitor their population at all times.
Absolutely. That's why the proliferation of this technology is particularly troubling. We know, for example, that Chinese research institutions have invested considerable resources in developing certain capabilities for this technology that has nothing to do with building cameras, but with building algorithms to analyze the data from those cameras.
A whole city as viewed through a camera is a lot of information for human eyes to process. If you can process that information with a really smart computer visions system, then the surveillance becomes activated and you can see everything at once. It's also particularly troubling because we know that China has an abysmal record when it comes to civil liberties. We know that it has an extensive program of surveillance in some of the western provinces where minorities live. With a camera like the cameras that I discuss in the book, they'd be able to do all sorts of unthinkable things.
Did you find any problems in terms of the technology itself or the people behind it profiling others?
There is a tremendous amount of evidence that suggests that all sorts of different algorithms and automated analysis systems in use today are biased. We know that's the case of facial recognition systems; we also know that it is likely to be possible in algorithms that do predictive policing based on historical crime data for particular neighborhoods. There's also the reliability element. When computers are analyzing something as subtle as a set of potentially suspicious behaviors, they're likely to make mistakes. It's not always clear to the human operators who are working with that automated system when it will make a mistake and when it won't. That makes the relationship between the computer and the human very troublesome.
Since aerial space is public property, if someone films me in a backyard, it isn't their fault for filming but my fault for not "protecting myself." Do you think we'll see public mobilization against these technologies?
I'm optimistic. Just as we are seeing, albeit slowly, a mobilization against some of the large internet firms because of all the data that they collect on us, people are starting to realize that the current regulations in place for protecting our privacy are not quite up to the task of regulating all the tools that are now at our disposal. You point to one very good example of that, which is that we do not, as per standing U.S. privacy law and precedent, have any expectation of privacy in any place that is visible from the sky. It doesn't matter whether you're in a backyard or in a secluded neighborhood surrounded by trees, if you're visible from above, anything is fair game.
That made sense at a time when the only aerial surveillance technologies in existence were expensive, loud, rare police helicopters that could only be used very sparingly for high priority investigations and operations. Now things are very different because with these wide area surveillance technologies. A single aircraft flying so high that you may not even be able to spot it from the ground can be watching you in fine-grain detail. That's completely legal because in the eyes of the law that high altitude persistent surveillance airplane is no different from a low altitude helicopter. Whenever I tell someone that these technologies are completely legal, I always get a reaction.
On March 12, 2019, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) of Sweden on March 11, China has broken through the traditional situation that the export of armed UAVs is dominated by the United States.
Photo: Long Wei / Barcroft Media via Getty Images
You make one prediction in a footnote that in 10 years we will have a third license plate on the roof of our cars so these cameras can track us. Do you have any other predictions?
That footnote is funny. It has gotten so much attention since the book came out. That really threw me off because I was writing about police departments following cars with aerial surveillance technologies not being able to see license plates. It just seems so obvious to me that we're going to have license plates on our roofs. Now that the book is out, many people have heard about it and seem to be pretty displeased by the prospect.
One of the predictions that I stand by is that whether or not every city in America will someday be watched by an all seeing eye in the sky. I believe that every city will be watched in some wide area way. Even if you don't have an airplane doing this type of surveillance, there are all kinds of other technologies that can track us wherever we go at all times of day. You could put the same types of cameras on the tops of buildings. You could apply tracking algorithms to CCTV cameras. You could use a dense network of license plate readers. All of these surveillance technologies operate on a similar principle, which is collect everything and then separate the wheat from the chaff. It's only when you collect everything that you can seek crimes that you previously did not know about.
It's a big data theory of surveillance. That's concerning because with the advent of automation, this data can be analyzed in all kinds of unimaginable ways. It can be analyzed to look for anomalies, because anomalies are considered suspicious and anomalies can lead us to crimes before they happen. We don't want to live in a society where every deviation from the norm is marked as suspicious.
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Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
We are likely to see the first humans walk on Mars this decade.
- Space agencies have successfully sent three spacecraft to Mars this year.
- The independent missions occurred at around the same time because Earth and Mars were particularly close to each other last summer, providing an opportune time to launch.
- SpaceX says it hopes to send a crewed mission to Mars by 2026, while the U.S. and China aim to land humans on the planet in the 2030s.
Spacecraft from three of the world's space agencies reached Mars this year.
In February, the United Arab Emirates' Hope space probe entered the Martian orbit, where it is studying the planet's weather cycles. That same month, NASA's Perseverance rover touched down on Mars, where it will soon begin collecting rock samples that could contain signs of ancient life. And in May, China successfully landed its Zhurong rover on the Martian surface, becoming the second nation to ever do so.
All three missions launched in the summer of 2020. The timing was no coincidence: once every two years, Earth and Mars come especially close together because their orbits are "at opposition," which is when the Earth-Mars distance is smallest during the 780-day synodic period. It is an opportune window to send spacecraft to Mars.
The handful of spacecraft currently exploring the Martian surface and atmosphere are scheduled to conduct their experiments for periods ranging from months to years. Some even plan to collect materials to return to Earth. For example, NASA's Perseverance will store its rock samples in protective tubes and leave them behind for a smaller "fetch rover" to pick up on a future mission.
Photo of Martian surface taken by the Perseverance roverNASA/JPL-Caltech
If all goes well, an Airbus spacecraft dubbed the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) will carry the samples back to Earth in 2031. It would be the first time a space mission has returned Martian matter to Earth. But before the decade's end, space agencies have some other missions that aim to study the Red Planet.
Europe & Russia
NASA is not the only space agency aiming to find evidence of life on the Red Planet. In 2023, Roscosmos and the European Space Agency plan to land their Rosalind Franklin rover on the Martian surface, where it will drill into rock and analyze soil composition for signs of past — or possibly present — alien life.
The joint mission is part of a long-term Mars project that began in 2016. This second phase was initially planned for 2020, but due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, the space agencies decided to postpone the launch to 2022.
"We want to make ourselves 100% sure of a successful mission. We cannot allow ourselves any margin of error. More verification activities will ensure a safe trip and the best scientific results on Mars," said ESA Director General Jan Wörner.
In 2022, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to send to Mars its TEREX lander, which will "precisely measure the amount of water molecules and oxygen molecules, and search for water resources and the possibility of life on Mars," JAXA wrote.
In 2024, JAXA also plans to launch a uniquely bold interplanetary mission that will involve sending a probe to orbit Mars, landing on the Martian moon Phobos, collecting surface samples, and then returning those samples to Earth in 2029. JAXA says the mission has two main objectives: (1) to investigate whether the Martian moons are captured asteroids or fragments that coalesced after a giant impact with Mars; and (2) to clarify the mechanisms controlling the surface evolution of the Martian moons and Mars.
Following the successful landing of its Zhurong rover this year, China released a roadmap of its plans for additional Mars voyages. The first is an uncrewed mission scheduled for 2030, with crewed missions planned for 2033, 2035, 2037, and 2041. As the International Space Station project is coming to a close, China is in the process of building its own space station; earlier this year it launched into orbit the first part of its station, which will take 10 more missions to assemble.
Elon Musk's California-based aerospace company has its sights on two Mars voyages: a cargo-only mission in 2022 and a human mission by 2026. The crewed mission would involve building a propellant depot and preparing a site for future crewed flights. Getting to Mars will first require an orbital test of SpaceX's Starship rocket, which the company hopes to conduct this year.
Regarding the long-term future of humans on the Red planet, Musk once told Ars Technica:
"I'll probably be long dead before Mars becomes self-sustaining. But I'd like to at least be around to see a bunch of ships land on Mars."
In 2014, the Indian Space Research Organization executed its first interplanetary trip with its Mars Orbiter Mission. It marked the first time an Asian nation reached Martian orbit and also the first time a nation successfully reached the Red planet on its maiden voyage. India has plans for a follow-up Mars Orbiter Mission 2, but it remains unclear when that will occur and what the mission will entail.
In February, the chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation said the nation would only launch a Mars mission after Chandrayaan-3, India's upcoming mission to the Moon, which is expected to launch in 2022.
A new episode of "Your Brain on Money" illuminates the strange world of consumer behavior and explores how brands can wreak havoc on our ability to make rational decisions.
- Effective branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Our new series "Your Brain on Money," created in partnership with Million Stories, recently explored the surprising ways brands can affect our behavior.
- Brands aren't going away. But you can make smarter decisions by slowing down and asking yourself why you're making a particular purchase.
How Apple and Nike have branded your brain | Your Brain on Money | Big Think youtu.be
Brands can manipulate our brains in surprisingly profound ways. They can change how we conceptualize ourselves and how we broadcast our identities out to the social world. They can make us feel emotions that have nothing to do with the functions of their products. And they can even sort us into tribes.
To grasp the power of brands, look to Apple. In the 1990s, the company was struggling to compete with Microsoft over the personal computer market. Despite flirting with bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, Apple turned itself around to eventually become the most valuable company in the world.
That early-stage success wasn't due to superior products.
"People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," John Sculley, a former Apple marketing executive, told The Guardian in 1997. "It was the marketing company of the decade."
So, how exactly does branding make people willing to wait hours in line to buy a $1,000 smartphone, or pay exorbitant prices for a pair of sneakers?
Branding and the brain
For more than a century, brands have capitalized on the fact that effective marketing is much more than simply touting the merits of a product. Some ads have nothing to do with the product at all. In 1871, for example, Pearl Tobacco started advertising their cigarettes through branded posters and trading cards that featured exposed women, a trend that continues to this day.
It's crude, sure. But research shows that it's also remarkably effective, even on monkeys. Why? The answer seems to center on how our brains pay special attention to information from the social world.
"In theory, ads that associate sex or status with specific brands or products activate the brain mechanisms that prioritize social information, and turning on this switch may bias us toward the product," wrote neuroscience professor Michael Platt for Scientific American.
Brands can burrow themselves deep into our subconscious. Through ad campaigns, brands can form a web of associations and memories in our brains. When these connections are robust and positive, it can change our behavior, nudging us to make "no-brainer" purchases when we encounter the brand at the store.
It's a marketing principle that's related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", Kahneman separates thinking into two broad categories, or systems:
- System 1 is fast and automatic, requiring little effort or voluntary control.
- System 2 is slow and requires subjective deliberation and logic.
Brands that tap into "system 1" are likely to dominate the competition. After all, it's far easier for us as consumers to automatically reach for a familiar brand than it is to analyze all of the available information and make an informed choice. Still, the most successful brands can have an even deeper impact on our psychology, one that causes us to conceptualize them as something like a family member.
A peculiar relationship with brands
Apple has one of the most loyal customer bases in the world, with its brand loyalty hitting an all-time high earlier this year, according to a SellCell survey of more than 5,000 U.S.-based smartphone users.
Qualitatively, how does that loyalty compare to Samsung users? To find out, Platt and his team conducted a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging scanned the brains of Samsung and Apple users as they viewed positive, negative, and neutral news about each company. The results revealed stark differences between the two groups, as Platt wrote in "The Leader's Brain":
"Apple users showed empathy for their own brand: The reward-related areas of the brain were activated by good news about Apple, and the pain and negative feeling parts of the brain were activated by bad news. They were neutral about any kind of Samsung news. This is exactly what we see when people empathize with other people—particularly their family and friends—but don't feel the joy and pain of people they don't know."
Meanwhile, Samsung users didn't show any significant pain- or pleasure-related brain activity when they saw good or bad news about the company.
"Interestingly, though, the pain areas were activated by good news about Apple, and the reward areas were activated by bad news about the rival company—some serious schadenfreude, or "reverse empathy," Platt wrote.
The results suggest a fundamental difference between the brands: Apple has formed strong emotional and social connections with consumers, Samsung has not.
Brands and the self
Does having a strong connection with a brand justify paying higher prices for their products? Maybe. You could have a strong connection with Apple or Nike and simultaneously think the quality of their products justifies the price.
But beyond product quality lies identity. People have long used objects and clothing to express themselves and signal their affiliation with groups. From prehistoric seashell jewelry to Air Jordans, the things people wear and associate with signal a lot of information about how they conceptualize themselves.
Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the relationship between self-image and brand preferences. This body of research has generally found that consumers tend to prefer brands whose products fit well with their self-image, a concept known as self-image congruity.
By choosing brands that don't disrupt their self-image, consumers are able not only to express themselves personally, but also broadcast a specific version of themselves into the social world. That might sound self-involved. But on the other hand, humans are social creatures who use information from the social world to make decisions, so it's virtually impossible for us not to make inferences about people based on how they present themselves.
Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think:
"When I make choices about different brands, I'm choosing to create an identity. When I put that shirt on, when I put that shirt on — those jeans, that hat — someone is going to form an impression about what I'm about. So, if I'm choosing Nike over Under Armour, I'm choosing a kind of different way to express affiliation with sport. The Nike thing is about performance. The Under Armour thing is about the underdog. I have to choose which of these different conceptual pathways is most consistent with where I am in my life."
Making smarter decisions
Brands may have some power over us when we're facing a purchasing decision. So, considering brands aren't going away, what can we do to make better choices? The best strategy might be to slow down and try to avoid making "automatic" purchasing decisions that are characteristic of Kahneman's fast "system 1" mode of thinking.
"I think it's important to always pause and think a little bit about, "Okay, why am I buying this product?" Platt said.
As for getting out of the brand game altogether? Good luck.
"I've heard lots of people push back and say, "I'm not into brands,"" Reed II said. "I take a very different view. In some senses, they're not doing anything different than what someone who affiliates with a brand is doing. They have a brand. It's just an anti-brand brand."